An Interview with Dorothea Lasky - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Dorothea Lasky

[poet, writer]
by Natalie Dunn
January 5th, 2021
Photo courtesy of The Adroit Journal

“Everyone loves Dottie,” a professor of mine said years ago when he lent me Dorothea Lasky’s first full-length collection, AWE. I took it home and read it under lamplight. I read it again. I carried it under my arm and folded it into jacket pockets. “AWE?” he emailed me months later. I hate it when people don’t return borrowed books. I gave it back to him. I read all of Lasky’s work after this, carried her books with me like appendages, lent them to friends and asked for them back.

Lasky is the author of five collections of poetry and most recently Animal, a series of lectures for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series published by Wave Books. Animal makes a claim for the metaphysical I, for color as conduit, for animals as creatures to learn from, and for ghosts as incontrovertibly real. Lasky writes, “When people tell me ghosts don’t exist, I just get bored.” Animal feels like an offering for a poetic shift, an offering to ask ourselves: What if we prioritized a shared imagination? What if this room was suddenly red? What would happen if we believed in things we can’t see? If we trusted our own cool animal?

Lasky’s poetry is stark and bare, funny and sad. Her poems with titles like “Whatever you paid for that sweater, it was worth it” “Fuck Everyone” and “IT FEELS LIKE LOVE” contain the weird music, annoyances, and joy of being alive. In Animal Lasky asks, “Do you ever feel like a poem knows you?” and that is exactly it. Reading Lasky’s work feels like I am being invited into her home to sit on the rug in her living room and sip on a strange tea I’ve never heard of. It’s bitter and sweet. She is completely herself and invites me to be the same. In her book Milk she writes, “If I am darker than light/ Then let it be so.”

Lasky and I emailed back and forth over the course of several months. Our exchanges were punctuated like this: !!!!!, <3 <3 <3,  XOXOXXXXX. Her email signature postscript changed often, from a Helen Frankenthaler quote (“The landscapes were in my arms as I did it”) in purple text to hibiscus and rose emojis around her name. Sometimes I would get an email back from her that said, “sent from my golden tone.”

Sometimes you meet a poet and they are what their work embodies. I have found not to expect this. But in the case of Dottie, she is everything her work is to me: magic, ghost-believing, generous, funny. Here we talk about loneliness and performance, ghosts and baby flies, breast milk and the living.

—Natalie Dunn

I. REDISCOVER THE I AGAIN AND AGAIN

THE BELIEVER: Animal begins: “Poems are gifts that we give to the wind. The best gift that a poet can give is to allow their I to be its own cool animal.” What does the I in poetry mean to you?

DOROTHEA LASKY: This is such an important question and especially for poetry. I’ve always had the belief that the I in a poem is a sort of performance of the I of the poet writing the poem. That is to say, I still think a lot about the I in a poem as a sort of mask of a speaker and not something one might easily overlay on a real self in the world. I think I’m drawn to this definition because I have always been a frustrated actress and have felt a lot of comfort in performance [as opposed to] complete sincerity.  To put the I on the stage of a poem excites me because it feels then as if the act has a grand purpose, and purpose for any action is something I consider (even when I don’t completely take it into account for every action).

Lately, I have been thinking of what is the future of this idea of an I. For example, is the I of a poem ever free from its poet, like the way a character can be free of its writer in fiction? I love poetry that joins nonfiction, and poetry and joining nonfiction to poetry is what I was attempting to do in Animal. So, I guess lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be open to being an open I and what this might mean for future poetry.

BLVR: Yes to the open I. It makes me think about how inadequate the term “confessional poetry” feels, as if exploring the “I” means to divulge something you already know about yourself instead of allowing the I to be personified, unknown, or existing in an imaginal space.

DL: I love these ideas. I agree completely. I’ve always found the term “confessional” to be inadequate, misplaced, because it suggests that the I understands itself completely and simply wants to disclose itself to the reader in an intimate/ public way. Whereas I feel that a lot of poems that might be deemed confessional do not have a finite sense of self and that the space of the poem is the space to rediscover the I again and again, by both the poet and the poem’s future readers.

BLVR: I see a lot of the shapeshifting and use of the imaginal I in your first book AWE. I also see friendship being at the center of this book.

In your poem “Toast to my friend or why friendship is the best kind of love” you write:

In friendship we are one together and in friendship
I am all soul. No that’s wrong, too.
What is a soul all aflame?
If it’s a bird in snow,
Then that is what I am.

How were you thinking about friendship and selfhood in AWE?

DL: Thank you so much for reading AWE! It feels so long ago that I wrote it, but yet so many things in there feel like foundations for my current thoughts about poetry. That was a book where I think I explored what it might mean to make a performative, not-completely discovered, known or unknown I and many of the Is in those poems couldn’t be further from a sense of “me” in the world and some of them are closer to me than anything. And yes, friendship was an important theme there, because it was around the time that I wrote the book that I found real friends, friends who loved poetry, too, and that was a special feeling for me because I tended to be a lonely person growing up (and still do tend to be that way) and have not had many real friends in my life. In that moment I think I fully realized how important communication and collaboration are to the presence of an I, that an I does nothing on its own—in spite of its bravado and insistence to the contrary. So, those true feelings about the importance of friendship seem so crucial to the things that the I in that book is able to do.

II.
LIKE I WAS A CHEMIST MAKING POTIONS, BUT FROM MY OWN BODY

BLVR: Your book Milk begins almost like a birth with the opening poem, “A Fierce and Violent Opening.” You write, “Blood is gushing everywhere”. The book ends with the poem “Blue Milk” and the line “Suffering/ Is a green light.”I’m also interested in how pain presents itself in smaller ways throughout the work, through aggravation and sadness. In your poem “Fuck Everyone” you write:

Why do women post their ultrasound photos
On Instagram
I don’t expect an answer
I would never put the image so sacred for all
The enemies to see.

How were you thinking about pain in Milk?

DL: So much of Milk for me is about the pain of distance and miscommunication. For me, becoming a mother was such a disconnected experience and definitely one where I felt there was a lot of pain: physically, emotionally and psychically. I feel this is true for many entryways into motherhood and other stages of one’s life that are transformational. My first birth was deeply traumatic, as were the months and years after it. I also had a hard time reconciling being a “literary” person and embracing motherhood—as it felt to me like the two weren’t always happy confidants. I think in the lines you quote I was trying to express that frustration and miscommunication—that absence of the truth of what motherhood was really like—in so many contemporary conversations I saw surrounding it.

Milk to me is also about the power of creativity—the idea that we hold within us so many worlds and possibilities of being and creation. That’s what I mean by the “green light” that ends the book.

BLVR: I’m interested too in how milk is functioning in the book as a substance and a substance of the body. I read your piece in The Lily about your relationship to your own breast milk and acknowledging the substance not just as a form of nourishment but also as a mode of communication and creativity. I see a connection between the poet and the poem and the human body and milk.

DL: I think of all of the surprises of motherhood, breast milk is the thing that most surprised me. I had never given it much thought at all and no one I knew ever talked about it. I myself was born in the late 70s and was formula-fed, so I really had zero connection to the whole process. I know there are all kinds of judgmental conversations surrounding it [breast milk] and many people now use its function as a way to make mothers feel guilty if they are unable to do it. I am not into that at all and think that’s awful, but I do find the idea and process of breastfeeding still such a generative topic in thinking about the power of creativity, particularly the creation of poetry. Because my baby was in the NICU for months, I didn’t so much breastfeed with her as I pumped for hours a day in an empty room in the hospital and labeled vials of this strange elixir with the date and time religiously. It felt much like I was a chemist making potions, but from my own body and of course, I got fascinated by that power. Breast milk itself is really cool. It is a sort of communication to the baby—it contains vital nutrients based on the baby’s age, et cetera—it has a sort of emergent knowledge that I feel a poem has, too. For some reason, even today, many years later, as I think about being hooked up to a breast pump alone in a sterile room, where tiny drops of creamy liquid are collected in a vial, only to be labeled and stored, I think of the similarities of that process to poetry writing. I think of the weirdness of language or milk emerging out of necessity—governed by its own rules that are not obvious nor fully understood. This medicine that we are thirsty for, even if we don’t completely understand why.

BLVR: I love the connection of the weirdness of language and milk emerging out of necessity and also how they can both emerge from a place of loneliness but both of them work to connect in some way.

DL: I’m so glad you understand what I mean. That is so something I think about too—how weird both processes are when you look at them coldly. Sometimes I wake up with a sort of odd feeling thinking about the language I create each day—almost like, what did I do? And also, why? It is perhaps the loneliness that I feel in both processes that adds to this odd feeling.

BLVR: Lol I feel that way all the time.

In Animal you write about color as vital, sensual, and a way to create a shared imagination in poetry. There is so much color [throughout] your work. I’m particularly struck by your use of color in your poem “The Ghosts” (in your book Milk). How are you working with color in this poem?

DL: I am a very visual person, so colors are extremely important to me in the everyday and this may be why I find them so important in poems. Thank you for mentioning this poem in particular! In this poem, I was thinking about the ways green can feel otherworldly, especially a pale green, like the green of the beginning shoots of plants and flowers, the look of light in the dawn, and also the unearthly glow of glow-in-the-dark objects. Even though I use other colors in the poem—like red and gold—this light green is the obsession of the poem. This pale sea color has always felt infused with ghostliness to me, because I think of it as a sort of color of the beginning and end of everything as one state, which is what I think ghosts are.

BLVR: Pale green is such a cool color. I’ve been noticing it on my walks in the morning, the shoot or new leaf color you talked about and how different that color feels than the darker green established plant.

DL: Oh, I am so glad! Yes, there is the newness of it that to me feels like the color of hope. It’s a liminal color. It’s also the color of baby flies.

BLVR: Baby flies sound so much better than maggots!

DL: Haha, yes! But even the very young flies, with their ghostly wings, are this pale green color, too. When I was in high school, I worked in a neurobiology lab at the local university and saw lots of their gorgeous wings.

BLVR: Oh yes, so this is the post-larvae stage. . . I googled them and they are pretty cute. You have so many connections to science.  Were you drawn to science when you were younger? Did you want to be a scientist?

DL: Very much so. Your questions are making me think of so many things that I had seemingly forgotten. But it might be valid to mention that this work in this lab was motivated by an experience I had in fourth grade. We studied flies in my class and I was obsessed with them. So much so that I spent every recess “taking care of them” (not sure they needed my help…) [instead of] going out to play on the playground. I always found recess to be a pointless exercise, probably because I didn’t have many friends (again, this lonely theme—sorry!). Thank you for making me think of these fly friends from so many years ago.

I did definitely want to be a scientist when I was younger. I went into college hoping to be a research scientist, but fortunately/ unfortunately, poetry then utterly consumed me. Still, I have always had a push/ pull with wanting to have a more rational approach to knowledge. I have a doctorate in education and am still involved in some small research projects with that (and always want to be involved in more), so I don’t think this love of researching natural phenomena has ever left me. I hope it never will.

III.
NOTHING IS MORE BORING THAN A POEM HAVING ALL THE ANSWERS

BLVR: One of your arguments for believing in ghosts is perfect: “When people tell me ghosts don’t exist I get bored.” This statement feels almost synonymous with people saying they don’t like or understand poetry—both poetry and ghosts being things that push past what we can “see.What is the relationship between ghosts and poetry for you? Do you think poems are in some way ghosts themselves? 

DL: I am so happy that you agree! I do think that poems are ghosts themselves in some way and that the resistance to both is based in a distrust in the invisible. I find this distrust also akin to a disbelief in basic principles of science (which we are very unfortunately seeing during our time and are suffering unnecessarily for). And in many ways, I see science, poetry, and ghosts as one in the same. For all three, we must rely on shared knowledge to know something and this knowledge is always evolving. In all three, we must commit ourselves to inquiry and not simply trust what we see in the most obvious of ways. We must rest in an uncertain feeling or thought, despite how uncomfortable it can be. For all three, we must question our sense of reality always and realize that any definition of reality is itself distorted by our singular perspective (and thus why all knowledge must exist as a collaboration). For me, the idea that ghosts may exist is not a truth, but a belief in the possible. It’s the possibility that I don’t have all of the answers. I mean, nothing is more boring than a poem having all of the answers. What is the fun in that?

BLVR: Science, poetry, and ghosts as all the same. I love that so much.  

DL: I always think about if people didn’t have such rigid conceptions of what science is they might trust it more. And it’s sort of the same with poetry and ghosts, but also any piece of knowledge. I always think (and especially lately) about if people didn’t need knowledge to be fixed—if they realized they were part of a grand collaborative process of knowledge creation and felt more invested in that—they might trust “scientific facts” more. I know it sounds counterintuitive and contradictory, but to me the acceptance that knowledge is malleable and something all humans do together over time helps me accept scientific principles, theories about poetry, and thoughts about the supernatural more fully.

BLVR: Do you feel in close relationship to any specific ghosts at the moment?

DL: In this moment, I maybe don’t feel close to a particular one, except my father. These past few years, there has been a group of them swirling through me, but in these last months, I am so worried for the living that I feel more focused on them.

BLVR: Me too—I’m worried about the living.

In Animal you write: “What does the animal do? It reminds us that living and dying is something we must do.” What do you think poets and the living learn from animals?

DL: It seems extremely cheesy to state it, but I think animals are much wiser than humans. This is totally idolizing them in a way that’s probably incorrect, but I think what I most appreciate about them is their sense of loyalty. Animal love to me is the best sort of love. Perhaps I am thinking too much of dogs when I say this. I guess I’d say, dog love is the best kind of love and what I learn from dogs is to be loyal, independent, and devoted to life. The way dogs are is an important lesson for all the living.

What can poets learn from animals? Now that is a hard question. But maybe artists in general can learn to trust their own instincts more. Everyone’s creative impulses are valid and sacred and it makes me so upset that not everyone feels that way. Too often our educational systems teach us not to trust ourselves and to fall in line with one way of thinking. But we need everyone’s imagination and for everyone to feel supported to be creative. A poet’s imagination is crucial to both the living and dead. It contains within it the hope of the immortal. And the immortal is something that animals always understand. 

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